Forecasting the future of print
While cleaning old bankers boxes from the garage I ran across an Adobe Magazine from the year 2000, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER EDITION VOL11/NO 6. The cover tagline reads: PUBLISHING AND DESIGN: WEB, PRINT, MOTION. They listed all the print ad advertisers’ websites on the last page. Guess how many of those businesses still exist! The majority disappeared due to irrelevancy. As fast as technology landscapes change, the companies that cannot keep pace die quickly. Their only escape is to sell; not their technology, but their install base. Software does not age well; It needs beauty enhancements as much as the people who live in Beverly Hills.
Print manufacturing in the 21st century is solidly in the technology, that is to say, software world. The next 20 years should see further rapid change in how tech is used in a print operation. The companies that produce the machinery are already researching and defining what the hardware will do. Likely faster, more energy efficient and smaller form factors; the less square footage required and the lower the rent. With intelligent software the fewer the personnel to maintain and the lower the payroll which is the most expensive component in print production.
It is the software that will offer the greatest changes. And different from the hardware side, developers have no idea where they will be concentrating their efforts. I have asked at least 40 software companies in the past 12 months for their vision 5 and 10 years out. Only the vaguest of replies, if they even offered an answer. Their collective challenges include what development language to use; what platform to build on; where the profit comes from; who will buy it; who will build it; do they know anything about print?
Can the print industry afford both the newest machinery and the latest technology. When the end product is ultimately substrate with some ink-like consumable applied, how much innovation is required? With software, it more complex. Think of it this way. How many updates to apps on your phone do you get in a month? A lot. And that is because software needs lots of attention. It dies a horrible death without the proper management. This is especially true when micro services that the app consumes change processes to function better. If anyone thinks the software community is well connected and coordinates their visions and efforts, think again. In fact even referring to it as a community is laced with irony.
The issue is stable technology vs. dynamic technology. The Adobe Magazine listing of business websites provides insight. 20 out of 50 remain, a failure rate of 60%. Consider the hardware technology. Koenig Bauer is 205 years old, Heidelberg is 170 years, Manroland 151 years and Komori 100 years. And these manufacturing companies are still the leaders in the print industry. Anybody remember Scitex, Creo, Matchprint, Velox? Bueller? Bueller?
Is a print manufacturing facility willing to allocate budget to simply keeping up? The craft of printing is being automated to the point the skill resides more and more in the software driving the equipment. Great for efficiency; essential in reducing costs; ideal for an accurate read on how the print operation is running. The unstated goal is for a designer to build files that seamlessly drop into a given print manufacturing workflow without human intervention. Indeed, it is the path of least resistance to affordable print products.
Yes, the last 20 years, two decades ago, the Dot Com era of the internet began it’s encroachment into things that were core to the printing industry. Newspapers, magazines, informational textbooks, directories, almost non-existent now by comparison. And largely for the better. Digital content is easy to update, maintain relevancy with current content and tracking eyeballs.
With this greater dependence on software technology over hardware technology, what changes, rapid changes, should the print industry expect and prepare for? The truth is no one knows. Vendors of both hardware and software will promote their vision, convinced they are guessing correctly. Are they?
The best and most accurate method of predicting what print manufacturing will be is to track what creatives are thinking; those innovative souls that experiment with new things, exploring ways of communicating, breaking down conventions, building visual concepts and communicating. These folks are who drives what print needs to be. How do hardware manufacturers and software visionaries coordinate with what a creative does…when they execute in a different universe?
It is comparatively easy to change when thinking is the tool. Expensive and risky when it is software and hardware. Therein lay the challenge of the future. No one really knows. Creatives create. Manufacturers just keep guessing, hoping and seeking cost reduction.
The future is likely to be along these lines: print manufacturing will follow the model of server farms, AKA the cloud. Centralized manufacturing facilities with a range of special processes related to print. Designers will feed the print manufacturing cloud directly with budget controlled purchasing business intelligence and realtime price and delivery commitments. Look closely at the current state of online print ordering and you see the architecture becoming more mature, more relevant to fulfilling the designers’ needs.
It is wise to understand that creatives are the lifeline for print. Listen to how they think. Watch what they do. Don’t sell them things. Respond to the needs you are able to identify and resolve. That is the value a printer can offer. That is the future of print.